Father and son contractors built the equipment dealership they always wished they could buy from

Updated May 12, 2021
From left, Jeff and Ben Franken initially thought their Kubota dealership would simply provide complementary income to their excavation and logging business Dove Creek.From left, Jeff and Ben Franken initially thought their Kubota dealership would simply provide complementary income to their excavation and logging business Dove Creek.

We’ve all got criticisms of the places we spend our money. But whether it’s because that business has cornered the market, or despite our complaints, we’re locked in out of comfort, we seldom do anything about it.

But Jeff and Ben Franken, the father-and-son duo that run Front Range Kubota, a construction and ag equipment dealership headquartered in Kiowa, Colorado, did the opposite. They used that discontent to fuel their own success story.

Their story and their hyper-focused attention to customer needs is why Equipment World editors have presented the Frankens with the Big Iron Dealer of the Year award.

Over the decades, Front Range owner Jeff Franken has done all kinds of work including fire remediation, logging, excavation and trucking. His company Dove Creek Enterprises included a successful excavation business for nearly 25 years.

Ben, the sales manager at Front Range, has achieved his own success as an entrepreneur. After Dove Creek struggled to find reasonable tree and logging subcontractors for excavation jobs, Ben started one himself. The logging business grew so much, Jeff asked Ben to partner with him and bring it under the Dove Creek umbrella. Under Ben’s leadership, Dove Creek was named the 2014 Colorado Logger of the Year.

In the process of running that tree business, Jeff and Ben ran into a problem.

“We were buying a certain product and they wouldn’t provide it any more for our tree company, and we had to buy a different product, which turned out to be Kubota,” Jeff recalls. “And they were so awesome, I was just like, ‘Wow, I wish I had a dealer by me.’
“…Next thing I knew, I had a little dealership.”

 

A change in plans

When Jeff and Ben established Front Range Kubota in 2013, they intended to run it as a complement to their excavation and logging operations.

“I thought it would be really tiny,” Jeff says. “I’d sell a few tractors and provide my excavating company and my tree company with equipment. But it blew up so fast I had to sell the tree company and shut down the excavating company, and this is all we do now.”

That’s not to say the decision to walk away from a life’s work was easy for Jeff, especially considering that the excavation operation was bringing in about $7 million each year while the logging business was bringing in another $2 million. And then there’s the fact that Jeff was, let’s just say, not fond of the office.

“Yeah that was terrible,” Jeff says of the transition from dirt work to paperwork. “I hate computers. I hated the office, and now I spend 90 percent of my time in an office, which I swore to God I would never do. But here I am.”

But when the economic downturn took hold in 2008, the impact on the Frankens’ business was swift and priorities shifted.

“We went from 30 machines and 30 employees down to about eight in 2008,” Jeff recalls. “When we started this up, it was either just focus on the dirt work or focus on this, and this is what got the priority.”

 

Up and up

“We don’t have salesmen,” Jeff Franken says. “All I have is guys that are there to guide customers to the correct product.”“We don’t have salesmen,” Jeff Franken says. “All I have is guys that are there to guide customers to the correct product.”

Though a transition from running machines to selling them may not have been where Jeff and Ben saw their professional lives headed, you’d never guess that from the success they’ve achieved. In just seven years, they have expanded from one to three locations and are pulling in revenues that dwarf their former venture.

“Ever since the day we started, it has just gone up and up and up,” Jeff says.

The Frankens attribute their quick rise to the quality of Kubota machines and their experiences on both sides of the equipment deal.

“Us being from the service industry first, knowing what downtime is, knowing how the field operates, knowing what these customers need by having been on their side of the fence for so many years, that’s our advantage over the competition,” Ben says. “We know how we wanted to be treated while we were working in the construction, excavation and logging industries versus how we actually were being treated.

“So we make sure our customers don’t have downtime. We make sure our customers have the tools that they purchased at their fingertips at all times.”

When it comes to advertising or promoting the business, Jeff and Ben take the same approach they took with Dove Creek: letting their actions speak for them.

“We never advertised. It was all word-of-mouth that built the dirt business and the tree business. Everything has been built by word-of-mouth and doing a good job,” Jeff says.

For instance, whenever a customer comes into Front Range needing a warranty repair, Jeff and Ben say they avoid what they see as an industry-wide practice of seeking to make money on top of that warranty fix.

“I bought machines for 30 years, and I would always end up with a hellacious bill whenever I would bring the equipment in for warranty work,” Jeff says. “We don’t do that. They come in, they get the work done, they get their machine back.”

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The Frankens’ experience as longtime equipment customers also impacts how they pick and train their sales staff. Instead of pressuring customers with sales staff with a big desire to sell equipment but no machine expertise, the Frankens have sought former equipment operators with construction or ag backgrounds.

“We don’t have salesmen. I don’t like the word,” Jeff says. “When people come in the front door, they want to buy a tractor. We’re a tractor store and they came in to buy a tractor. All I have is guys that are there to guide them to the correct product. So it’s imperative that my staff is very proficient in every machine that we have.”

When Front Range makes a sales hire, that person typically won’t actually sell equipment until they’ve spent two or three months at the dealership, Ben says. That time is for shadowing the Frankens and their staff, learning the features and benefits of the machines they’ll be selling as well as those of the competition.

“They need to know how a machine will operate in the field,” Jeff says. “So that they can say when a machine might not fit the customer’s need – and not in the sense of an upsell. There’s a lot of customers we down-sell. We tell them when they don’t need that big of a tractor.

“We’ve got to put people in the right product for what their application is.”

 

A focus on inventory

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The Frankens’ parts inventory is another aspect of their business fueled by former frustrations.

“We have the largest [Kubota] parts inventory in the country. In fact, there’s a lot of dealers that call us for parts that they can’t get from corporate,” Jeff says.

“…You’ve got to do things different and in more of a service attitude. When somebody walks in the front door, I want them to be done when they walk out.”

The Frankens also don’t like the idea of a customer coming in to spend a lot of money on a machine and then not getting to take it home that same day.

Sometimes, though, despite their best efforts, the machines just aren’t there – such as during a global pandemic that has caused supply-chain issues for manufacturers. Ben says lead times on most new Kubota machines have been 60 days, with some even longer.

But just because they don’t have a new machine to send customers home with, doesn’t mean the Frankens don’t try to send them home with something. They call it a “gap machine.”

“So we make sure that we’re taking stuff out of our own inventory or out of our rental fleet or from our used line just to make sure the customer has something and is satisfied until the arrival of their new machine,” Ben says.

Thanks at least in part to the work they’ve put in and the loyalty they’ve built among their customers, the Frankens say they haven’t seen any other negative impact from the pandemic. In fact, they’ve seen the opposite. If the $30 million sales revenue estimate the Frankens have for 2020 holds, it would mean a 23 percent increase over 2019.

“I don’t care what business you get into – it absolutely makes no difference – if you treat people with dignity and respect, and smile, you’re going to be successful,” Jeff says.